This post is a bit different. Some of you may have already noticed that I post Monday Tips on my Facebook and Instagram. I thought it would be a good idea to gather all tips here in one place. I will be updating this post every Monday. When it will end? When I will run out of ideas :)
One thing needs some clarification. All I write on my Facebook/Instagram and here on my website about watercolor painting comes from my experience, from what I’ve learned, what works for me and my approach to watercolor painting. I’m not speaking on behalf of all watercolorists, but on behalf of myself. You don’t have to agree with me. Of course there are other watercolorists who paint differently, who use different methods, different techniques, different art supplies etc. What works for me doesn’t have to work for you and what works for you doesn’t have to work for me. I am only sharing with you my way of painting. I want it to be clear, because I’ve been getting some private messages lately like “you’re not right, I’m using this/I’m doing this and it works”. That’s fine! Use/do what works for you. I’m sharing my way of painting. Please, understand that. Thank you and happy painting!
Here are some tips.
1. Artist grade paints are more vibrant and pure because of the higher pigment content. Whereas student grade paints contain fillers like kaolin and have less pigment.
2. Try to use single pigmented colors to avoid mud.
One pigment = one color
Two pigments = two colors
When you mix two colors and both of them have 2 pigments, then you are actually mixing four colors, which may end up looking like mud.
3. Try to mix only 3 single pigmented colors. The more colors you mix, the muddier and duller the final color will become.
4. If possible try to use good quality paints that are either transparent and semi-transparent and try to avoid the opaque ones, which will also dull your paintings.
5. Clean your brush always in clear water whenever you change colors. Also keep two clear containers of water next to your painting. One container to rinse off your brushes, and the other container to apply clean water to your paint.
To prevent the masking fluid from clinging to the hairs of the brush always use a bar of soap. Dip your brush first into clean water and rub it gently onto a bar of soap. Soapy coat will protect the bristles. Now you can dip the brush in masking fluid and apply it on the paper. After that rinse your brush again in water. Repeat the process. Never use your best brushes for applying masking fluid. Buy a cheaper brush and keep it only for this purpose.
When the painting is finished and the paint is completely dry, I lay my painting face down and dampen it gently with a little water using either a big brush or sponge. I then put another piece of paper (usually several sheets of copy paper) on top of the back of the painting and place something heavy on top, like books for example, and leave it to dry overnight. In the morning the painting is completely dry and also flat. I’ve done that with all my paintings and it always works.
Sometimes I get questions from people leaving in hot climate – what to do to extend drying time. When the weather is hot and humidity is low it might be difficult to paint, because the paint dries very quickly on the paper.
1. One of the solutions would be to use “Blending Medium” by Winsor&Newton. This medium “Slows the drying of water colours, allowing more time for blending. Extends working time even in hot climates.”. Add a few drops to your water jar and if you don’t see the different add more until you notice the difference in the drying time.
2. Another way, if you don’t have access to the blending medium, is to add a few drops of honey to your painting water.
3. Glycerine is a humectant just like honey. You can use glycerine in the same way as honey.
4. You can also extend the paint and water drying time by adding several drops of ox gall to your painting water. Ox gall primarily enhances the paint mixing and blending capabilities to achieve beautiful smooth washes, but it also helps to keep the paint wet a bit longer.
5. Alternatively, you can adjust your way of painting to the conditions. You can make use of the fact that the layers dry quickly to paint in glazes. But I can imagine it would be hard to do with every painting and it can be frustrating, so treat it just as fun exercise.
I’ve been asked about this many times. There could be several reasons why the masking fluid ripped the paper. Here are some of my observations and suggestions that you may consider to help you perfect this technique.
1. Rule number one is that the paper has to be bone dry before applying masking fluid.
2. Masking fluid ideally needs to be removed as soon as the painted section surrounding the masked area has dried completely. In my own experience, I have kept the masking fluid on the paper for two days only. If you leave it on for longer you run the risk of damaging the paper.
3. Masking fluid, unfortunately does not have a very long life span. If the masking fluid is too old, it looses its ability to be peel off easily.
4. If you add too much water to your masking fluid (yes, you can dilute it a bit), it may cause the fluid to soak too deeply into your paper and when you try to remove the masking, it may rip the paper.
5. Some watercolor papers are too soft and can’t tolerate the strong adhesive masking fluid, which also causes the paper to rip when you remove the masking.
6. Please always test your brand of masking fluid on a small scrap of paper before you apply it to the bigger sheet of watercolor paper. Some brands of masking fluid work well on some watercolor papers but can be disasterous on other brands.
When you are painting you always have to blot your brush on a paper towel/tissue/cotton cloth (I prefer paper towels). It’s good to put it into some kind of container, so when the paper towel is wet, you can easily replace it with a new one. Additionally, because paper towel is in the container, it will protect your working area from mess. I used to place my paper towel on my desk and after a while my desk was wet. Placing the paper towel in a bowl is such an easy way to keep everything clean.
Cleaning your palette is not essential but it can help you to keep your colors clean and vibrant when you paint. It is not essential, because we know many artists who don’t clean their palettes (take a look at fully loaded palette of Yuko Nagayama), but for the beginners especially it is highly advisable. I sometimes get questions “Why my colors are not clean on my paintings?”. One of the reasons is a dirty palette. Try to mix colors in a mixing area. Don’t dip your brush in the well/pan with blue and then in the well/pan with yellow. Take blue paint and put it on the mixing area, clean your brush and then take yellow and mix these colors in the mixing area, not within the wells. After a while when you don’t have space on your mixing area to mix a new color, clean it. Don’t try to fit one more puddle of paint because the colors will mingle and you will get a dirty color. Try to clean your palette after or before every painting session. It takes one minute, but it will really help you. Just take a piece of paper towel, water and clean the surface. If you see that colors on the wells/pans are not clean – clean them as well. This might be very obvious or silly you may think, but sometimes it’s really good to clean up the mess.
I’ve learned that it’s much better to build a color and form with several layers than trying to do this with a single layer. In most cases it’s just impossible. When you build up the color and form with thin, transparent layers you have more control over it. With each layer you can adjust the color, the tone and the size of the area where you are applying the paint. This way you can build the color and form that will look more realistic. The key here is to understand how colors react with each other, what result you will get if you apply one color on top of another. It comes with practice. When you try to build form with only one color and one layer – you will never get realistic results. Even if you see that a leaf is all green, there is a 99% chance that you should use some red, or blue, or at least another green to make shadows and build form.
I try to use transparent or semi-transparent paints. I have only Naples Yellow Deep PBr24 which is opaque (and it’s just an additional color) + white gouache. Opaque pigments are ones you can’t see through, e.g. all cadmium colors are opaque. All opaque paints, however, can be transparent if you add enough water. Nevertheless, it’s better to avoid them because they tend to get muddy quickly and because of their properties they can cover other paint, which is not what we’re looking for in watercolor painting. Beautiful transparent watercolor glazes is something that makes watercolor painting so special. Of course sometimes opaques can be useful, but use them with caution. How do we know the paint is opaque? We can just check the symbol of opacity that each color has. Opaque paints are the ones with the symbol of black square or they have letter O which stands for opaque.
There are many approaches to starting a painting. I usually start with the background and the reason for that is that it’s just easier. I can use masking fluid to mask out the main subject, then I can paint the background freely not worrying about the masked area. When the background is done, I remove the masking fluid and I can paint the main subject. If I did this conversely, I would have to be very, very careful when painting the background. The main subject would have already been painted and I would have to carefully paint around it. Another advantage of this method is that the background is more even, more consistent, there are no patches of colors, because I paint the background all at once and the masked area (main subject) doesn’t disturb me. This method is particularly good when there is a one (or more) clearly indicated subject in front. Take a look at the example. Here is my tutorial with the yellow orchid: https://youtu.be/WM8vq184Tbw
If you wonder sometimes what colors should you use in the background and you can’t find the clue, think about your main subject. Maybe there are some colors which you could use in the background. If you reflect some colors from the main subject the whole painting will be unified. This is one way of dealing with background colors. Additionaly, if you allow your background to be blurred (by painting wet on wet), you can create the impression of many more subjects like the main one somewhere behind and it will add the depth of field to your painting. In my cactus painting you can see I have used some pinks in the background which makes us thinking that maybe there are some more pink cactuses there, but they are not directly shown allowing our imagination to work.
If I had to choose one thing that makes a good painting, I would choose values. I would like to quote Sylvia L. Dugan:
“Using a full range of values serves a number of functions in a painting:
– they indicate the direction of the light and shadows in the composition;
– they add dimension to the forms and shapes in the scene;
– they can lead the eye in a planned path throughout the painting;
– they emphasize and develop the center of interest or focal point;
– they create the illusion of distance and depth; and
– they help to establish a mood or emotion in the picture.”
These functions of values are the keys to a successful painting. Without well established values a painting lacks all of the above characteristics and in general we can say that it becomes flat. In private e-mails I am often asked to give my opinion on a painting that has been sent to me. In most cases I can see that the authors have fear to use dark values. Many people believe in some kind of unwritten rule that watercolors “should” be light and delicate. Of course, they can be light and delicate, but there are also many other styles. It’s up to the artist. I believe that a wide range of tonal values is extremely important. Placing dark values next to light values gives more drama to a painting, helps to achieve the effect of strong light and is essential if we don’t want to have a flat painting. I like to create a contrast between my main subject and the background. The above painting with a pigeon is just an example. Light colors of the pigeon in contrast with the dark background helps to create the strong focal point and brings the bird to the foreground.
There is no one way of choosing colors for shadows. Each time we have to make a decision, but the good news is that with time choosing colors becomes natural and we do it subconsciously. Here are some tips which you might want to consider.
- Always refer to a color wheel. This way it will be easier for you to choose shadow colors.
- The easiest way to create a shadow color is to use the same color but a darker tone. When you apply the first layer of color, leave it to dry and then apply another layer of the same color in the shadow area. Darker tone of the same color can make a shadow color, but it’s also a bit boring and less dynamic.
- Use complementary colors. Look at the color wheel and find which color is the complement of the local color (the color you want to find a shadow for; a complement color is the color on the opposite side on the color wheel). Let’s say you are painting a green leaf. The complementary color of green is red. Add a bit of red to your green and you’ll get the shadow color. Other complementary pairs are: blues-oranges, yellows-violets. Be careful with violet and yellow – for the yellow shadow use just a tiny bit of violet. On the other side, for the violet color, shift the hue a bit and add warm yellow or even orange.
- Complementary colors create shadow colors, but they also make the colors duller. If you want to maintain the vibrancy of the local color, try to use analogous colors. Analogous colors are the colors next to your local color. Look at the color wheel. If you look at the yellow, analogous colors are oranges and greens. Depending on the hue of the shadow you want to get, add the analogous color to your local color. You can add a darker yellow to your yellow, a touch of orange or even some brown. You can also add green if the shadow color is cooler and towards green. Another example, a shadow color for the red can be achieved by adding the color on the side towards blues, so it can be a darker red, violet or even blue.
- You may be tempted to add black or something like Neutral Tint or Payne’s Grey to your local color in order to create shadow. It may work sometimes, especially with Payne’s Grey, but use them carefully because they can kill your color. Adding black to a color kills it, adding complementary color only subdues it.
- Shadow color is usually cooler than the local color, so you can always check if violets or blues can do the work.
- Make the shadow colors dynamic and interesting. Try to build your shadow color with more than one color. Maybe there are some reflected colors from the surrounding area? Imagine a beautiful rose with the yellow center and pink petals. Use your creativity and artistic license. Paint the petal shadow using yellow shadow closer to the center and pink shadow closer to the edge. Let the shadow colors mingle, creating the glowing effect. It’s always more interesting to see playing colors within the shadow than just a one, darker, flat shadow color.
- Whichever way you choose remember that in most cases only a tiny amount of color is needed to change the hue and create a shadow color.
I usually keep two water containers next to my palette. In one of the container I rinse the paint off my brush, so the water quickly becomes dirty.The other one contains clean water which I use to apply a water glaze when I paint wet on wet. I use a jam jar for keeping the clean water and a regular flower pot to keep the dirty water. The containers should be quite heavy, so that they don’t move when you press the brush on the edge of them to remove the excess water.
There are three important functions of taping the paper to a board. First of all, it allows to keep the edges of the paper flat. The paper lays still, it doesn’t move and the edges of it lay flat. Second of all, the tape provides a clean, white edge which not only looks more professional, but it is also helpful if I we are going to frame the painting. The white edge gives us additional space to hide and attach at the back of a mat, so we don’t have to loose the edges of the actual painting under the mat. Another advantage of taping the paper to a board is that we can easily tilt the board with the painting, adjust the angle and the painting lays flat on it. It’s sometimes very helpful, especially when painting wet on wet.
I don’t know how about you, but for me it’s very annoying when I buy a new, beautiful brush and there is a sticker on it with a bar code. Then I try to remove the sticker, but the sticky residue is still on the handle. Grrr! But I once read about a great way to remove that sticky residue, and I’ve been doing it since then with a great success. Just take some butter, not much, and rub it gently on the sticky area. After several rubbings your handle will be completely clean. Of course it works not only on paint brush handles, but on other surfaces as well. Try this! It really works.
It may be obvious and I repeat it in every video, but I want to stress it once again. Drying before applying a new layer is crucial. Yes, I know you are impatient 🙂, but it’s really important. You can always use a hairdryer to speed up the drying process. If you apply paint on a damp layer, you will ruin your painting. The paint from your brush will disturb the previous layer and you will get one big mess. If your paper is cool to the touch, even if you think it’s dry, it’s still damp, so wait a few more minutes. If your previous layer is completely dry, you can apply another layer with no worries. You can apply many layers in the same place on condition that you wait until each layer dries thoroughly.
I think it’s a good idea to make a color chart with colors we have on a palette. Colors on the palette can look very similarly and sometimes it’s hard to say which one is which. Some of them are very dark and after a while you can also forget where you put a particular color. I don’t trust my memorizing skills, so I always make a color chart for each palette I have. On my current palette I have 11 reds, pinks and violets in one raw and untill now I can’t remember where is which red. A color chart really comes in handy. It is a great reference tool. I always write a name of the color and a pigment number. Thanks to this I have already memorized all names and pigment numbers of my colors. A color chart also helps to see how the particular color looks like on the paper, which has helped me many times when I have to choose colors for a painting. Also, when we refill the well after a while, we can look at a color chart to make sure what color needs refilling. I remember a situation with my John Pike’s palette. I didn’t make a color chart and after some time I was not able to distinguish the blues. Some of them looked very similar. Since then I always make a color chart.
If you have just started your watercolor journey and you are confused about what colors should you buy, I recommend starting with the split primary color palette. It’s better to buy only a few good quality paints than a bunch of poor quality paints. And these few paints could be six primary colors, which are a great starting point. Split primary color palette is composed of yellow, red and blue splited into warm and cool versions. With split primary colors you can mix more vibrant colors than with just a standard primary color palette. It allows you to mix almost all hues. It’s a good idea to start with these colors, play with them, see what you can get and add more colors to your palette with time. If you need a recommendation, I would go with the following colors. Winsor&Newton: Winsor Lemon PY175 (cool yellow), Winsor Yellow PY154 (warm yellow), Quinacridone Magenta PR122 (cool red), Scarlet Lake PR188 (warm red), Winsor Blue Green Shade PB15 (cool blue), Ultramarine Blue PB29 (warm blue). Daniel Smith: Lemon Yellow PY175 (cool yellow), Hansa Yellow Medium PY97 (warm yellow), Quinacridone Lilac PR122 (cool red) (not a perfect magenta, another option would be Quinacridone Rose PV19), Organic Vermilion PR188 (warm red), Phthalo Blue Green Shade PB15 (cool blue), Ultramarine Blue PB29 (warm blue).
I keep my brushes in a brush case, but when I am painting, I take several brushes out to work with and I shift from one brush to another while painting. The problem always was that the brushes I was not using at the moment were lying around my table, sometimes I couldn’t even find them. One big mess. Finally I found a great way to keep my brushes in one place. Just put rice into some kind of container (I have just a regular glass) and put in your brushes into the rice. The brushes will stand upwards and each of them will be easy to locate. Rice helps to hold the brushes in place, so that they don’t fall onto each other.
I know that it is very tempting to show everyone that we painted something as soon as possible. The quickest way is to take a photo with a smartphone and publish it. I suggest being a bit more patient and scan the painting. I personally don’t have a scanner, I always go to a copy shop where I have my paintings scanned. When they are scanned I am sure that they will be well presented online. Scan of a finished artwork is always much better than a photo (unless we have a professional photo studio). I sometimes see people posting beautiful paintings, but the presentation is weak, because the photo is taken in bad lighting conditions, sometimes even when the paint is still wet, the picture is blurred, there’s a shadow on it and it’s hard to see the true beauty of a painting. If it’s a work in progress photo, it’s totally fine, but when it’s a finished painting, it’s better to have a good scan of it. I used to be impatient and also wanted to show everyone my painting as soon as I finished it. I used to be impatient and wanted to show something right away, but I realized that since others do not even know that I paint something, if I show it two days later, it will not make a difference to anyone. Good quality pictures are especially important if you have your portfolio online. In the photo you can see the example, two versions of my painting with garlic flowers. The left one is a scanned version, the one on the right is a photo. When a painting has a white background, it will never be white if you take a photo.